It's time for CD quality music to make a glorious comeback

In with the old, out with the new

Tidal Music went live to the world today. It's a new music streaming service that offers music at CD quality, and as you'll see from our review, we rather like it.

It's an important moment for music, because sound quality has been in the dog house for nearly 15 years now.

Napster introduced us to the MP3 and the benefits of digital distribution back in the late 1990s, and we've been suckling at the teet of compression algorithms ever since.

You can't blame us. Digital downloads and streaming is a far more convenient way of accessing music. And CD quality tracks have always been too big to carry around on our puny mobile devices.

What's more, compression has gotten better and the OGG format used in Spotify, for instance, really does do a great job of minimising the loss of quality. But it is still a lossy format.

That situation is changing now, though, for a number of reasons. Firstly, mobiles now have plenty of onboard storage – there's a 128GB iPhone 6, while many Android smartphones have expandable storage and microSD cards are getting bigger all the time.

And secondly, with super fast broadband connections, 4G and the proliferation of unlimited data plans, it's no longer out of the question to just stream CD quality music over the internet. Technology is enabling us to improve our listening habits.

So you would have thought then, that as technology continues to move on, it's only a matter of time before FLAC becomes the format of choice for all digital music. In the future, why would you settle for anything less?

Do people care?

But the question remains, do most people care about this level of sound quality? Sure, there was a time when we all bought CDs on a regular basis. But did most people enjoy the full sound quality of those CDs?

I'm not sure they did. Hands up who listened to CDs through a crappy mini stereo system? Meeeeeee. Many people bought CDs because it was convenient, didn't need to be rewound and never got tangled up in a car's cassette deck, not because it offered superior fidelity over tape.

I did a shout out on Facebook before writing the Tidal Music review to see how many people were interested in a CD quality Spotify alternative for £20 a month. Almost no one was, at that price.

You only have to see how many folks on the street today are using Apple's basic EarPods to see that many people don't even think about sound quality. And the sheer number of young people who wonder around with Beats by Dre on their noggins like pieces of exotic head jewellery reveals just how many think that funky looks and massive bass is all there is.

A high fidelity future

But there is hope yet for real sound quality. Because you know what kind of product I get pitched by PRs over all others at the moment? Headphones.

If Beats by Dre did anything for music, it's that it showed tech manufacturers that people really are willing to pay £200 for the right pair of headphones. And since then, sales have gone berserk and every tech company is going big on them.

You've got to say it's happening at the right time, and it fills me with hope that we're approaching the day that truly excellent sound quality is available once again to everyone inside their service of choice.

I think it's important. I've always been happy with Spotify's top setting of 320kbps (it's not the default!) but I did a lot of side-by-side testing during the Tidal review and the difference between 320 OGG on Spotify and 1411kbps FLAC on Tidal really is big. With some tracks it's like listening to two completely different recordings.

At double the cost of a standard subscription, Tidal is obviously only going to appeal to those that care deeply about sound quality.

But, with more people buying good headphones and with more storage and bandwidth available, it's surely a matter of time before the other big hitters offer FLAC streaming. And that will a good thing for everyone, whether you particularly care about sound quality or not.

James Rivington

James was part of the TechRadar editorial team for eight years up until 2015 and now works in a senior position for TR's parent company Future. An experienced Content Director with a demonstrated history of working in the media production industry. Skilled in Search Engine Optimization (SEO), E-commerce Optimization, Journalism, Digital Marketing, and Social Media. James can do it all.